After nine years writing Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, Emily Yoffe has noticed some recurring themes: “Mothers in law, husbands addicted to porn, impossible officemates, crazy brides.”
Sometimes, Yoffe says, letter-writers say they’re prepared to abide by her advice, whatever it is. “I have people writing to me, saying ‘I thought we wanted three children, but I realized I’m happy with two. My spouse wants another. What do you think?’ What do I think? You know this is not an issue for me to decide, right?”
The advice-seekers want a neutral third-party, one they trust, to arbitrate the conflicts of their lives. The letters often end with questions—how can I get over this? What should I tell her? Am I making the right choice?—that boil down to the universal “What should I do?”
Once they have an answer, they can act, see what happens, and stop living in anxious anticipation. Because it’s often the not-knowing that’s the worst.
One of the downsides of the mostly awesome phenomenon of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. We know the future exists, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in it. “In other animals, unpredictability or uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable,” says Dan Grupe, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. “Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.”